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A Call to Sing: Morris Robinson Shares Wisdom Learned in Opera Career

Robinson shared the lessons he has learned during his career as an opera singer in a Listen Up! lecture and helped opera students find their voices in a masterclass

Music can come from unexpected places. When Morris Robinson graduated from college in 1991, he had no intention of pursuing a career in music. As Robinson began his professional career after college, music—let alone opera—was the furthest thing from his mind. But when the call to sing came in the form of an audition appointment his wife had secretly set up, Robinson answered. Today, he is one of the top opera basses in the world, having performed with the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic and at Carnegie Hall, among other prestigious venues.

Morris Robinson speaks on a stage.
Photo by Dylan Carter

On March 2, Robinson visited BYU campus and addressed CFAC students and faculty in a Listen Up! lecture. In his remarks, Robinson emphasized the role that God has had in his journey from an all-American football player in college to the renowned performing artist he is today. He said that he considers his current opera career not a job, but a calling from God.

“Mine was a calling,” said Robinson. “It’s a calling, and with that comes a great responsibility.”

Part of what Robinson considers his responsibility in his “call to sing” is the responsibility to help diversify the audience that attends opera performances. During his travels and tours, Robinson makes a point of inviting everyone he meets, no matter their background, to come to the opera.

As Robinson works to diversify the opera audience, he also works to diversify what the audience sees on the stage. During his performance the evening before the lecture, Robinson sang pieces by indigenous, Black, American and Jewish composers alongside pieces by Mozart and Hugo Wolf. Recently, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded Robinson a grant to write three new diverse operas.

The following day, on March 3, Robinson led a masterclass with opera and vocal performance students. During the masterclass, five students performed opera pieces for Robinson, and he gave each student individualized feedback on how they can continue to improve their craft.

Robinson emphasized intentionality, advising the students to learn the meaning behind the words of the pieces they sang, as well as to take time to breathe and give each musical phrase its full due.

Photo by Dylan Carter

“Take your time, breathe and allow yourself to enjoy making the breath part of the phrase,” he said.

With each note and comment that Robinson gave the students, he did so with the intent to help them improve. He reminded the students that the practice room is the place to make mistakes and learn, so that when performance time comes, the practice pays off.

“You learn how to do it now, so it becomes second nature to you,” said Robinson.

Robinson also stressed the “why” behind performance. As performers, Robinson said that his, and the students’, aim should be to “[make] music” and to “[make] it beautiful.”

Alexis Hopkins, a senior in the music performance program, performed “Mignon 1” by Hugo Wolf for Robinson. Hopkins said that the experience was “fun but very eye-opening.” She continued, “He helped me see what I needed to work on the next time I went to the practice room.”

Master’s student Rebekah Nelson also had the opportunity to perform “What Good Would the Moon Be” by Kurt Weill for Robinson. Nelson said that the experience of workshopping her piece with Robinson was helpful for her to think about her singing as more than just good technique, but as an expressive performance.

“It made me realize that even though I thought I was already being expressive, it didn’t come off to the audience as much,” she said. “In opera and theatre we have to exaggerate gestures and emotions so it will read to an audience in a large hall. . . . Singing with good technique is just the beginning, but singing with ‘espressivo,’ as he called it, is what makes a performance truly thrilling.”

Nelson added that she was grateful for the opportunity to learn from Robinson. “I was really glad to have another opportunity to share my talents and what I have learned with someone who has achieved so much,” she said.